Voyeurism: The Pleasures and Perils of Watching

Inside every man, hides a little voyeur! The same holds true for most women. But is voyeurism a fetish?

When held to its original religious definition, fetishism is the worship of inanimate objects in an attempt to control external phenomena.

The core idea behind a religious fetish is the principle of sympathy between associated things.

In other words, the religious fetishist believes in an actual connection between an image and the original after which it is fashioned.

An example is when a witch pierces a doll with a needle expecting the person after whom the likeness was patterned, to “sympathize” and feel pain.

In modern sexual parlance, a fetish is a particular sexual interest, such as role-playing, or a preference for certain physical characteristics, sexual activities, or objects.

In modern sexual parlance, a fetish describes a particular sexual interest, such as role-playing, or a preference for certain physical characteristics, sexual activities, or objects.
In modern sexual parlance, a fetish is a particular sexual interest, such as role-playing, or a preference for certain physical characteristics, sexual activities, or objects.

The Voyeur’s Fix

Voyeurism is a sympathetic fetish. Unlike the religious totem fetishist, however, the object of the sexual voyeur’s fixation is the pleasure experienced by others engaged in the sex act.

This kind of auto-erotic sympathy is by no means rare in the age of mobile phones, CCTVs, and internet pornography. The Journal of Sex and Research has published a study that lists voyeurism as one of the most common fetishes among men and women today.    

“Voyeurism … interested both male and female respondents at levels above what is usually considered to be statistically unusual,” reports Quebec University researchers Christian Joyal and Julie Carperntier.

In fact, the researchers found voyeurism so prevalent among respondents that “the results call into question the current definition of normal versus anomalous sexual behaviors.”

The object of the sexual voyeur’s fixation is the pleasure experienced by others engaged in the sex act.
The object of the voyeur’s fixation is the pleasure experienced by others engaged in the sex act.
(Photo: Mike Carter/Flickr)

A Breach of Boundaries?

Sandra Phillips, curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, takes the observation a step further, arguing there is no real line between normal and anomalous. The desire to peek into the lives of others is basic in human nature, she says. After all, all art involves looking.

The distinction, Phillips points out, is more properly defined by discretion. In other words, what differentiates the passive sexual voyeur from the prurient Peeping Tom is the consent of the subject being watched.

Permission is a sensitive subject, and unwanted attention is often a serious offense. The man who spied on Lady Godiva – thus giving the English language the term Peeping Tom – was punished with blindness. The Elders who ogled Susanna bathing were put to death.

Permission is a sensitive issue, and unwanted attention is often a serious offense.
Permission is a sensitive issue, and unwanted attention is often a serious offense.

Even so, Phillips acknowledges that the line is precariously thin, noting the inherently furtive nature of the voyeur. “The issue of privacy is essential to understanding voyeurism,” she says. “But I do think it breaches a boundary of accepted privacy.”

Privacy is obviously a relative issue among consenting adults. There is little doubt that most people tend to look at sexually interesting scenes. For some, looking is preferred over actual participation, presumably because real contact is too threatening for one reason or another.

“This voyeuristic element is sometimes revealed in people’s fantasies, in which they look at other people rather than participate themselves,” says John Bancroft, former Director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. “Voyeurs usually take care not to be seen.”

Consensual Voyeurism

Still, psychologist and relationship expert Jill McDevitt says elements of voyeurism openly play a function in the sexual relationships of many loving couples.

“I use voyeurism as an example of a fetish that can be done in a fun and consensual way or in a non-consenting and harmful way,” says McDevitt.

The relationship expert recommends three specific ways to incorporate voyeurism in the sex lives of willing couples:

  • “Watch your partner masturbate. This could look like encouraging your partner to lie on the bed and do their thing while you watch from the crack of the door.”
  • “Watch your partner shower or bathe.”
  • “Bring in another person to watch your partner have sex with.”
Psychologist Jill McDevitt recommends that voyeur couples watch each other shower or bathe.
Psychologist Jill McDevitt recommends that voyeur couples watch each other shower or bathe.

shopThat being said, there is nothing unusual about the desire to watch someone without them knowing. For instance, a woman in lingerie standing in front of an open window is certain to attract some attention.

There is also nothing new or unnatural about them being furious if you are caught. Both predispositions are as old and as natural as humanity itself.

Social attitudes toward voyeurism may have undergone some changes, though.

If Lady Godiva were to ride naked across Coventry today, she would do so on a motorcycle. Local authorities are unlikely to punish any Peeping Toms with blindness. They are more likely to jail the good lady for public indecency, instead.

What’s your story? Do you like to watch? Why not share your thoughts with your fellow readers?


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